Wednesday, 17 March 2010

A Face Off over The Burqa

The reason I am dragging this subject back into the blog is because I was asked about the matter for a radio show just recently. Click here to listen to Eye on Wales in which I contributed.

Should we, could we and would we ban the burqa?
The French have of course brought up the issue, and I stumbled across this fascinating article on the Time Online which really spells out where Britain has gone with it's overdose of political correctness.

Written by French journalist Agn├Ęs Poirier, it reveals why on this occasion, we should be following their lead.

"The burka is not a religious problem, it's a question of liberty and women's dignity. It's not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France. In our country, we can't accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That is not our idea of freedom.”


So spoke Nicolas Sarkozy in Versailles during his first state of the nation address to France's two chambers, the National Assembly and the Senate. He won rapturous applause and there is little doubt that an overwhelming majority of the French agreed with his every word. I say an overwhelming majority because this issue crosses all party lines in France. Republican principles of equality and secularism are so deeply grounded in the French mind that they belong as much to the Left as to the Right.

For someone like me, firmly on the Left, the defence of secularism is the only way to guarantee cultural diversity and national cohesion. One cannot go without the other. However, when I get on Eurostar to London, I feel totally alien. To my horror, my liberal-left British friends find such a position closer to that of the hard Right."

This point of view struck me as such an interesting truism I felt I had to cite it here. But interestingly the situation in France and the UK is not comparable. Across the Channel, the Burqa has been banned in state-run schools since 2004 and cannot be worn in hospitals or municipal offices or for that matter "anywhere where people interact as equal citizens"

Poirier goes on to say (and I am starting to like this woman more and more) that such a ban could never happen in the UK.

"When Jack Straw dared to state the obvious in 2006 by saying that the burka and the niqab were “visible statements of separation and of difference” before asking politely that women visiting his constituency surgery consider removing them, it provoked angry protests from Islamic associations and the British liberal- Left, always inclined, it seems, to defend the rights of liberty's enemies.

Seen from France, Britain's tolerance of extremist views looks at best naive, at worse dangerous: a recipe for trouble, division and painful soul-searching....If Britain's tolerance of political and religious extremism is often bewildering to the French, it also fascinates them. This tolerance does appeal to some French because of its sheer exoticism. French tourists visiting Britain for the first time, London in particular, are struck by what they perceive as a kaleidoscope of different ethnic minorities going about their day in their religious and cultural attire, cohabitating seemingly peacefully with punks and the half-naked: being free to differ.

What those visitors may discover later is that the price of this peaceful cohabitation lies in a constant bargaining of specific rights for specific communities in the name of cultural difference - the opposite of equality as understood in France. In France, public swimming pools would never allow women-only sessions to satisfy the demands of a minority. A public space is constructed for citizens to interact freely, and legislation written to remove the barriers of difference that separate them.

Seen from Britain, French principles of equality and secularism are often misinterpreted, and dismissed as authoritarian or prejudiced. But critics of the French approach don't seem to understand that secularism is neutral - the State doesn't recognise any religion in particular but protects them all, guaranteeing cultural and religious diversity by ensuring that one faith does not get the upper hand.

Can our two countries learn from each other? France could certainly try that very British tolerance and Britain could be more rigorous in arbitrating between the common good and the demands of communities. But our two systems are anchored in such different traditions and histories that we can only keep marvelling and staring in bewilderment at each other's approaches to social harmony; both of which are struggling to keep pace with the growing confidence of minorities who, once ignored, are now at the centre stage."

The fact that Poirier draws a conclusion that the British seem to pander somewhat to those minorities that impact upon the very concept of Britishness is interesting, and leads me to make this final point...

You never see women in the dictatorial, tyrannical, misogynistic cultures that promote the veil asking for the right to not wear it, for fear that stoning or flogging or domestic violence would ensue. The fact that Muslims in support of the ban hold it up as the right of that particular woman is as incongruous and hypocritical as people who suggest in some way that lapdancing, pole dancing, porn and the resultant objectification of women is in fact female empowerment. I think not.

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